“Sonia Sanchez is a lion in literature’s forest. When she writes she roars, and when she sleeps other creatures walk gingerly,” so said our beloved Maya Angelou. When it comes to having a great love for one’s people and humanity, eminent poet, scholar, activist, playwright, and one of the foremost architects of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), Sonia Sanchez (pictured), remains a seminal source of inspiration and wisdom sharing knowledge and insight to respond to the spiritual, economic, and social challenges facing the world today.
Sonia has authored more than a dozen poetry books, as well as numerous plays, critical essays, short stories and children’s books. The honors she has received are many and include the National Endowment for the Arts Award, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, and the Langston Hughes Poetry Award. Sonia is the recipient of the highly coveted Robert Frost Medal, an award that is given by the prestigious Poetry Society of America for “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.” Notably, earlier this year, Sonia was honored in Harlem at the 16th Annual Dr. Betty Shabazz Awards in a ceremony at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
As an educator, Sonia was one of the first to teach Black Women Studies at a white institution and continues to advocate for the rights of oppressed women and minority groups. She was also one of the pioneers who helped bring Black Studies to academia across the country. In this interview with 50BOLD, Sonia openly discusses her work, “what it means to be human” and explains why the Black Arts Movement never ended.
50BOLD: At various workshops, you’ve commented on how poets have their pulse on the world. Please elaborate on this powerful and intriguing statement.
Sonia: One of the things I remember is that when 9/11 happened, I had received a call from a couple of editors and they said, “Professor Sanchez, what poems could we read in order to get through this?” Isn’t that amazing? What short stories and what plays? Well, there is this understanding that a poem would keep us right, how it touches the heart, how it is immediate. What a poem says in 10 lines, or 12 lines, or 20 lines, or 2 pages, its intensity, that is what a poem is all about, right? How each line is a chapter someplace. Poets are indeed the creators of social value. They are conscious of what is going on and it’s immediate. They give you lines and they give you words that turn you around and make you stop and sigh, live and cry, and just be. It is something that we do, to bring people closer to being human. We try to answer the question, what does it mean to be human? And poetry does that best. Novelists, who are poetic, and who write in what I call the poetic tradition like sister Toni Morrison and sister Alice Walker, when you read their works, you’re reading poetry. It’s amazing how they do it. I tell my students to read them out loud. Don’t tell me you don’t understand, read their work out loud and you’ll hear what they’re saying. The poetry will hit you in the stomach, in the gut, in the heart, in the toe jam. So that is a joy!
50BOLD: Why did the Black Arts Movement last only seven years?
Sonia: No, no, no, it never ended! You should read the anthology that we put out, SOS–Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader edited by John H. Bracey, Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst, (UMass Amherst Press), it tells you a great deal about the importance of the Black Arts Movement. It didn’t start in ‘65 and end in ’75. The intro in SOS talks about the movement, what was done and how we did it and how America picked up on it and began to fund writers and people. It is stated in the book’s intro that the movement “was the most influential U.S. arts movement ever in this country.” You have to understand that. Certainly, no other radical cultural movement reached such a large American audience.
Black Arts cultural groups, writers and artists’ workshops, theaters, bookstores, study circles, dance company schools, journals, small presses, reading series, galleries, museums, public art spaces, sprouted up wherever there was a Black community, large or small. Most big cities had multiple Black Art institutions. For a time, Black arts became a stable of popular culture media aimed primarily at Black audiences, it was seen in such magazines Ebony and Jet, on TV programs like Soul and Like It Is, and even in Blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Superfly. In short, the movement directly reached a grassroots audience of millions–an amazing achievement for such a politically and aesthetically radical cultural movement.
50BOLD: It is still taught in schools today that the Black Arts Movement lasted seven years which is strange, don’t you think?
Sonia: There were people teaching it who didn’t have the information, so they thought this because it’s what the government said. There were many who were not happy with BAM. And many of BAM’s members remained artistically active to a degree that few of their living contemporaries from the 1960’s could match. Many well-known post Black Arts artists like novelist Toni Morrison, novelist the playwright Pearl Cleage, playwright August Wilson, poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, filmmaker Spike Lee, musicians Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind and Fire (not to mention a huge proportion of the jazz avant-garde), actors Avery Brooks, Samuel Jackson, Denise Nicholas and Danny Glover–were all molded by the movement. The movement served as a catalyst for Asian Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Native American cultural movements. It provided an important template for the literature, theory, and criticism coming from the second wave feminist movement.
The more radical “Third World” wing of early multi-culturalism, too, largely emerged out of Black Arts and Black Power. Finally, it remains almost impossible to discuss work by African-American artists without referencing the criteria suggested by the movement, especially with respect to issues of authenticity and the relationship of art to an idea of the Black community. It brought culture to the people. It introduced the idea that “high” art can be popular in form, content and that popular culture can be socially and artistically serious.
50BOLD: You also offered another powerful statement regarding how young people need ammunition. What do they need to do in order to move forward?
Sonia: We have to become very honest with ourselves. We have to recognize the fact that people of color are at risk. We might have all of these material things, worldly things, but what we have to understand at some point is that we’ve got to begin to look at the world and say how can we begin to save us. How can we begin to really, and in no uncertain terms, look at the world and realize there’s something more than money at stake here. What is important for us is to understand is that we are supposed to maintain this earth. Mother earth is saying, ‘I’m in trouble and you so-called humans are destroying me!’ We’ve got to look up, grab our children and I mean not just the children from our wombs but going to schools, to teach them, what they really need to know. We must bring the human quality back into the schools, into teaching.
So often these young people are just talking about making money. Just listen to young people…“I want to make a million dollars!” You don’t hear…”I want to learn art,” or “I want to be the best at what I do.” We cannot forget our humanity. We survive through our humanity, taking care of each other, looking out for one another. So this is one of the things that I try to talk about in terms of what it really means to look at the world and say, ‘I am going to maintain my humanity, our humanity.’ If we fail to do this, we are not going to have a world.
50BOLD: Can you talk about your involvement in bringing Black studies to colleges across the country?
Sonia: I was one of the first people to bring Black studies to San Francisco State University when I came out of the Black Arts Movement. And then we brought people in the Black Arts Movement out. We brought out Amiri Baraka, we brought out Askia Touré. We also brought out some SNCC workers, who were really highly educated young people to come out and be a part of the first Black studies program in America at what was then, San Francisco State College, which is now a university. I went around the country to help. I went to the University of Pittsburg and there, I taught the first course on the Black woman, so this came out of the whole experience. And so then you see that Black arts extended into the universities. At San Francisco State, Danny Glover was an older student returning from the war, so he became part of the Black Studies department and began acting out there. He acted in plays written by Baraka. So do you see the continuation? Danny Glover continued to be active.
50BOLD: Over the years, you’ve often spoken about the word “resist.” Can you discuss the importance of resisting injustices?
Sonia: We have to resist my sister! Robert Hayden a great Black poet who said, “It is time to call the children into the evening quiet of the living room and teach them the lessons of their blood.” That’s what we have to do! And these lessons are to be mindful of …the way you walk, how you talk, what you drink, what you put in your mouth, who you love, who you bring into your sacred space; how you educate yourself, how you take in information. All of these things are important to understand. And it’s important that we also deal with language, we need to learn language which is why I teach literature; that’s why I teach writing. Literature assures [us] that our life goes on, that it doesn’t end, that the story is left unfinished for the next generation to continue and keep it going. And the point is to remind people that they come from a bloodline of Black educators, women, and men, who in a sense, reconstructed themselves after being enslaved. They literally reconstructed themselves after being enslaved. They answered life with a yes. They didn’t go around killing people but they answered life affirmatively. They kneeled down at the sound of love, of family, of books, of freedom, of roots…. We waited for our children to be born…. And we rescued our tongue from mourning….
I want our people to know that we have performed wonders in a wondrous land. And we’ve got to remember that it’s in your hands, as Sister Toni Morrison said in her acceptance speech, after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, “It’s in your hands to effect change. It’s in your hands to demand freedom.” So I’m saying, it’s in your hands to resurrect your faces from non-learning, from killing and murder. It’s in your hands to create life, to create love, to create her-story and his-story because she said, ‘it’s in your hands to effect change. It is in your hands. No one else can do it for you. You must do it for yourself.’ So this is what we’ve got to understand for our children.